COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—The maturation of Nikolai Zherdev is pulling Columbus fans out of their seats and leaving a positive impression on his teammates.
A year removed from a disastrous season and the center of many trade rumors, the 23-year-old talent from Ukraine has found himself this season under coach Ken Hitchcock and new general manager Scott Howson.
“He’s catching on how to really play and act,” said Rostislav Klesla, also a former first-round draft pick by Columbus. “It’s been a long way for him.”
Klesla and Kris Beech had the other goals for the Blue Jackets.
Eric Staal scored for Carolina, which hasn’t won consecutive games since Nov. 10-12.
Scoreless early in the second period, Zherdev circled behind his net to gather a full head of steam for the coast-to-coast rush. He skated around or through every Hurricanes player before zipping a low shot from between the circles past Cam Ward.
“He’s as good as anybody in the National Hockey League with the puck,” Hitchcock said of the right wing, well on his way to career highs with 15 goals and 31 points. “He makes plays very few players in the world make and he does it at top speed.”
Leclaire made two key saves just moments later. He stopped Trevor Letowski’s snap shot from the slot with his left toe then sprung to the other post to stop Letowski again with his right toe.
“That’s the kind of hockey we need to play if we’re going to win and keep ourselves in the mix for a playoff race,” said Pascal Leclaire, who made 23 saves.
Klesla made it 2-0 on the power play at 6:45, redirecting Ron Hainsey’s point shot for his fourth of the season. Zherdev set up Hainsey on the play.
Late in the period, Rick Nash—who missed the last two games with a sore throat—chipped a long backhand pass from his zone to send Zherdev on a breakaway behind defenseman Mike Commodore. Zherdev faked forehand, then beat Ward with a high, backhand shot that sent the water bottle in the air at 14:02.
“It was three bad things that happened in a row,” Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette said about the Blue Jackets’ second period scoring outburst. “They made the most of their chances.”
John Grahame replaced Ward—who stopped 17 of 20 shots—to start the third period.
“Just everybody needed to be better, everybody,” Laviolette said.
Carolina, playing its third game in four nights, did apply pressure immediately in the final period and had a handful of scoring chances trying to get back in the game.
Staal put the Hurricanes on the board on the power play with his 20th, scoring on a screen past Leclaire at 2:50.
A passing miscue about six minutes later between Hainsey and Leclaire nearly cost the Blue Jackets, but Leclaire made a sprawling save on Staal.
Scott Walker rang a slap shot off the right post midway through the period on another Carolina power play.
Zherdev passed up a chance for his third goal into an empty net, dishing to Beech.
“Those types of things endear you to your teammates,” Hitchcock said.
Staal and teammate Ray Whitney extended their point streaks to seven and six games. … Nash ended a career-worst seven-game pointless stretch. … Columbus beat the Hurricanes at home for the first time in three games since Dec. 29, 2000. … The Hurricanes played without D Bret Hedican, C Matt Cullen, D David Tanabe and RW Justin Williams.